Monday, April 16, 2007

Religious Undertones In Rembrandt's Latter Paintings

In an article from, critic N. F. Karlins discusses Rembrandt’s concluding works and how these works seem to address Rembrandt’s inner struggles through religious subject matter. During Rembrandt’s later years, he was faced with economic problems as he was, at that point, “yesterday’s news.” Not only was he troubled financially, but he was also brought before a court by a woman who claimed he had fallen back on a promise to marry her (tough legal system). To make matters worse, Rembrandt was forced to live out his days with a sullied reputation after having an illegitimate child with the lucky Hendrickje Stoffels.

The series of paintings, perhaps an intentional series, perhaps not, represents inner struggle. Each painting is characterized by “lined brows, putty-like hands and drooping eyelids,” a fact that illustrates the inner drama and emotional struggles faced by each figure. One notices the deep struggle over, presumably, religious questions in the majority of the paintings. Religion is the presumed topic of contemplation by the characters considering a number of characteristics found in many of the works. These characteristics include the subject matter itself (saints, evangelists, Christ, the Sorrowful Virgin, possibly a monk), signs of martyrdom (knives, swords) as well as numerous props such as religious dress and bibles. At least one character, the apostle Paul, is represented in more than one painting.

Rembrandt’s spiritual history during the time these paintings were created leads one to believe that the paintings relate to the struggles one faces as life comes to an end coupled with the ensuing questions and uncertainties. Rembrandt, religious or not, must have been looking for answers to the struggles facing his life and as was natural for him, he expressed his pains and questions through art. This last set of paintings was by no means his only attempt to represent Christianity. Religiously themed paintings can be found throughout Rembrandt’s career. The painting illustrating the mother of his illegitimate child, Hendrickje Stoffels, may have been painted to show the agony of not only the social stigmas placed on someone in the situation, but also the perceived scorn from God after having a child out of wedlock. The focus of the painting, as is the case with the others in the set, is on Stoffels' face. With a pursed mouth and face that looks away from the painter, the painting seems to indicate embarrassment and contemplation over how and why the subject became involved in such a socially and religiously unacceptable act.

One oddity concerning The Apostle Bartholomew is that Rembrandt paints him in traditional European clothing. Considering Bartholomew lived in the first century, he lacked the luxury of a nice comb-over haircut or chic European duds. He does carry a knife that represents his religious martyrdom, but Rembrandt gets the viewer thinking by portraying Bartholomew as his contemporary. This painting was probably supposed to parallel a more realistic representation of Bartholomew that Rembrandt painted about a half decade earlier and can be seen by clicking on the earlier link.

Rembrandt’s last paintings are something to marvel over. Not only are they aesthetically appealing, but they allow the viewer to dive into Rembrandt’s past through a significant amount of imagery. Upon learning of Rembrandt's life history during the time of his latter works, one is able to realize where he was coming from and what influenced his paintings. In terms of social and religious questions, Rembrandt probably had a lot of them during this time. Perhaps he wasn’t struggling with religious questions, but only decided to illustrate his emotional uncertainty through subject matter that was familiar to him.

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